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Zoochosis by Clapperheads will make you fear those lovely animals in the zoo

Like most times in horror stories, it starts out as a normal night. A rookie zookeeper straps on their bodycam and begins making the rounds on their first-ever night shift. But soon, you discover that things are far from normal in this zoo. A terrifying parasite is spreading, mutating some of the animals into grotesque, blood-thirsty monsters ready to kill their way out of their cages. Welcome to the unsettling world of Zoochosis by indie game studio Clapperheads.

The teaser trailer of the game, which featured a heavily mutated giraffe scurrying over the enclosure, received over 10 million views across YouTube. The game has since gathered well over 200.000 wishlists on Steam. Behind all this madness is an indie studio, but not in the classical sense. It’s a group of international professionals with expertise in both film and game industries. “Clapperheads was founded in 2022 in Bulgaria”, says Executive Producer Aleksandr Robak. “We have team members all over the world in countries like Uzbekistan, Germany, Latvia, Serbia, Montenegro, Japan and USA. Around 30 people are working remotely on the game now.”  

The idea for the game came from Executive Producer Oleg Gaze (Bulgaria) while he strolled through the botanical garden that seamlessly transitions into a zoo, casually scrolling through his Instagram feed. When he stumbled upon Adam Woodsmith’s new work, Gaze stopped dead in his tracks. “Looking around the zoo, my mind was already transforming the animals behind the fences into images from Adam’s post! By the next morning, I was swinging like a pendulum, from ‘this is a really cool idea’ to ‘nah, forget it’. However, I decided to share it with the team. And well, you see the result.”

Simulator, horror and animals

Zoo animals transforming into mutated monsters is cool and all, but framing this idea into appealing gameplay required thorough analysis of the niche the studio wants to serve. “When we founded Clapperheads, we were certain that we wanted to specialize in horror games”, explains CPO & Lead Game Designer Valentin Shchekin (Serbia). “With our first game Sparky Marky, we needed to quickly make a game to make a name for ourselves, especially during such a challenging time for the industry. And simulators are perfect for that with high replayability with relatively short game durations, allowing us to focus more on the details that enrich the gaming experience.

“Then we started thinking about how to reach a larger audience, and that’s when we came up with the idea of adding animals. Everyone loves animals, right? So we thought, where could we combine all these three elements; simulator, horror, and animals? Of course, in a zoo. And that’s how Zoochosis was born.” 

Love the innovation

And so, with Zoochosis being a simulation, the team had to come up with gameplay variations of what a zookeeper actually does (spoiler alert: it’s nothing like the real thing). They just let their imagination run wild. Something that Creative Producer & Narrative Designer Inna Fomina (Uzbekistan) really embraced during development. “I love the innovation in our game. I mean, we’ve come up with a lot of things that don’t exist in real life: mutant animals, substances, equipment, and how it all functions. Despite none of this being real, it fits wonderfully into the storyline, making it original and memorable.”

“I also really like our characters in the game. We haven’t talked much about them yet, but they’re just as intriguing as the animals. Each of them has a deeply thought-out backstory. Each character has an interesting personality. We developed the characters together with our lead writer, Alexander Dagan. I also worked on designing the characters’ appearance, from facial features to clothing. This is one of my favorite parts of my job.”

Cinematic flair

Valentin Shcheking highlights the cinematography and the systemic nature of the game as key features of Zoochosis. He mentions that when people compared the game to a movie right after the first trailer came out, he didn’t realize that the game already possessed these qualities. “It was only after the second gameplay trailer, where I played and recorded all the footage directly from the game, that I realized that the cinematic style of the visuals is part of the game’s aesthetic, and I’m proud of it. At the same time, we consider gameplay to be paramount and strive to refine it so that all mechanics and assets are constantly reused. It’s crucial for us that the system we’re building is self-contained without unnecessary elements, and I think we’re achieving that.”

The game’s visual style is an interesting blend of the stylized horror of the mutated animals and the realistic environment of the zoo. Character Concept Artist Adam Woodsmith (USA) feels that the grungy setting really fits well with the monsters. “The visual style along with the premise of the game and story should work together”, he says. “I wanted the mutant animals to look vicious and deformed. A very scifi horror style.”

Dramatic elements

To develop the story and subsequent gameplay, the team of writers and designers immerse themselves in endless brainstorming sessions where they determine what they ultimately want to achieve. “In the first draft of the script we set the key dramatic elements”, says Shchecking. “Then the designers write a flow document that allows us to ‘play on paper’ and fully envision the future game. Based on the flow document, the entire scope of work is roughly estimated and divided into tasks for all departments. At this stage, the other departments come into play, and endless brainstorming sessions with them begin. It’s crucial for us to find cool ideas. Everything else is just the work process.”

Oleg Gaze emphasizes that this way of working only functions with a team of like-minded individuals. “It’s important to build a team where everyone is passionate about their work, so that the project becomes a personal project for everyone in the team. We selected people based not only on their experience but also on their personality, talent, and passion. We strive to enable everyone to reach their full potential. Our studio is structured as a creative laboratory where everyone’s input is highly valued. Trouble is that there are only 24 hours in a day.” 

Childlike excitement

Zoochosis will be released on Steam in Q2 2024. What are the expectations of the team? “Right now, I’m working on assembling the game flow, and what I’m seeing already fills me with childlike excitement”, says Shchecking. “I believe it’s going to be a really cool and unique game. You can already see it, and the expectations for it are nothing but positive!” Oleg Gaze agrees wholeheartedly. “We don’t expect anything, we just dream that millions of people will love this game!”

Eric Bartelson
Eric Bartelson
Editor-in-Chief of PreMortem.Games. Veteran game journalist for over 20 years. Started out in 1999 for game magazines (yes the ones made of paper) such as PC Zone Benelux, PlayNation and GameQuest, before co-founding Dutch industry paper Control Magazine.

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